The Problem Of Games Being Art, But Also Products

Tale of Tales, who most recently released the excellent Sunset—but who were also behind games like The Path and The Endless Forest—have decided to stop making and releasing commercial (in the most literal sense, as in available for sale) video games, announcing the news with an honest and confronting blog post that anyone involved with independent video games should probably take a look at.

Our desire to reach a wider audience was not motivated by a need for money but by a feeling of moral obligation. We felt we had to at least try to reach as many people as possible. To make the world a better place through the sharing of art as videogames, you know.

The drying up of funding for artistic videogames in Belgium (an issue beyond the scope of this article) did make satisfying this desire more urgent. No problem, we thought. This is an opportune moment. Several games with similarities to our own have been greatly successful. Some of their creators openly admit to be inspired by our work. So we studied theirs and figured out how to make our next project more accessible.

That game was Sunset, and Tale of Tales bet big on it, spending more cash than they had on its development and even going so far as to hire a PR company and taking out ads on PC-centric games site Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

The approach didn’t work. The game has sold 4000 copies, which in the scale of the PC market and the amount they spent on its development and promotion, is a massive disappointment. Comparing the work that went into the game’s design and its ultimate failure to resonate with a wider audience, Tale of Tales says they’ve learned the following:

- We studied successful games and applied our findings to the design of Sunset. And while the inclusion of certain conventions seems to have helped some people enjoy the game, it didn’t affect the size of our audience much.

- We spent a lot of money on a PR company who got us plenty of press, took some work and worries off our shoulders, and found us other marketing opportunities. But it didn’t help sales one bit.

- We even took out an advertisement on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where we figured the people most interested in Sunset would be gathered. They must all use AdBlock because that had no effect whatsoever.

- We worked hard on presenting a gentler Tale of Tales to the public. Which basically meant that Michaël was forbidden to talk in public and Auriea often just smiled at the camera, parroting words whispered in her ears by communication coaches. Didn’t make a difference.


“We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a ‘game for gamers.’”, they add. “We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that’s one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don’t think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.”

The game’s fate, and that of Tale of Tales, has led to some soul-searching amongst prominent indie developers, and for good reason: what are current or aspiring devs to take away from events like this? How can they survive as developers working on games as (SORRY) art, and not have to dilute or alter their designs simply in order to reach a market and thus make money? What does it mean when a game resonates with the press but can’t find an audience?

Whatever the future brings to Tale of Tales’ Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (and whatever kind of work they’re able to produce free from having to worry about adblock), we wish them all the best.

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What does it mean when a game resonates with the press but can’t find an audience?

It means that the press is not in tune with the community it claims to represent. I understand that there’s an argument for artistic merit, but Sunset, much like “Gone Home” didn’t really have what most people playing video games are looking for, interesting gameplay. When your core gameplay element is cleaning an apartment, you have to ask yourself if you’re making a game that’s fun to play. I clean my apartment in real life, why the hell would I want to clean someone’s apartment in a video game? Plenty of games, such as “Papers Please” have made cogent artistic and political points with interesting gameplay elements too. Ultimately if you’re making a video game, you need to make a game first and an artistic point second.